Shipping Out: Launching the Big-Screen Version of E. Annie Proulx's Prizewinner Provided Challenges for Both Director and Star
Clark, John, Book
LAST SPRING, DIRECTOR LASSE HALLSTROM was sitting in the house that is at the center of his cinematic interpretation of E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, explaining what drew him to the high-profile literary adaptation. "The novel is such a wonderful mix of poetry and journalism and trivia and humor, and a document of the island" of Newfoundland, Hallstrom said. "And I wanted that range for the movie. And also this whole image of the house: This is the key image that drove me to the project, the visual of this house being lashed down to rocks. It's the ultimate image of a house being protection from the outside world."
The house, in fact, was reassembled after being built in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and shipped in pieces to a former potato field on the southeastern coast of Newfoundland. (The island, along with Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench and Julianne Moore, is one of the real stars of the film.) The interior of the house was dressed to look drably '40s, with primitive appliances and canned goods. Outside, in keeping with the description in the book, cables attached to the four corners were bolted to the ground so that the building wouldn't blow away; like most houses here, it didn't have foundations. If this is someone's idea of protection from the outside world, that outside world must be a nasty place.
Indeed: In Proulx's 1994 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Quoyle, Spacey's character, is a slovenly, thick-headed loser whose slutty wife, Petal (played by Cate Blanchett), sold his two daughters to a child pornographer and then died in a car accident. The kids are found, and Quoyle beats a retreat to Newfoundland with his aunt Agnis (Dench), who was born and raised there. He gets a job at a third-rate newspaper, The Gammy Bird, and pursues a fellow long-sufferer, Wavey (Moore), whose husband drowned and whose son is mentally disabled. The only thing that prevents the book's reader from slitting his wrists is that it is funny--very funny--in a black way.
As the film moved toward production, fans of the book wondered how Hallstrom's sensibility would match the material. The director is certainly Hollywood's idea of the right guy. He has adapted literary material before, much of it dark, quirky and character-driven. But none of those films--What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat--exhibit quite the merciless, fatalistic quality that characterizes Proulx's novel. Many of her characters are not outwardly---or even inwardly--appealing. Would Hallstrom be capable of finding a cinematic equivalent to her vision? One person who thought the answer would be yes was Spacey, a big fan of Hallstrom's brilliant 1985 film, My Life as a Dog, an unsentimental account of a young boy's life in Sweden.
"Every time I've seen his work with family and the idea of connections that go on and on and on, I just feel he's incredibly perceptive and he has an unjudgmental eye," said Spacey. "He just presents characters--good, bad, foibles, greatness, moments of courage and bravery--with an incredible simplicity."
And, as pointed out by producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton, like Proulx's characters, the Swedish director is from a cold, rocky, seafaring background. (That pretty well matched what the crew faced upon arrival in Newfoundland: On the first day of shooting, near the east-coast town of Trinity, there was a blizzard; by midday, the snow had melted. …